10 FrulingssturmeJaromír Weinberger – Frühlingsstürme
Soloists; Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin; Jordan de Souza
Naxos 2.110677-78 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110677-78)

When Frühlingsstürme opened in Berlin on January 20, 1933 it seemed to be another success for its celebrated composer, Jaromír Weinberger. But ten days later the Nazis took power, crushing the creative spirit of the Weimar Republic; Frühlingsstürme was shut down. This staging from January 2020 at the Komische Oper Berlin was the first since that precarious time. It too was shut down – by COVID-19. Fortunately, it was filmed. 

Frühlingsstürme is a dramatic spy story with a doomed love affair between a Russian widow and a Japanese general at its heart. The music is sophisticated and delightful. Gorgeous melodies draw on Weinberger’s Czech and Jewish heritage, and complex rhythms recall popular styles of the day like jazz, foxtrot and tango. 

Barrie Kosky, the provocative Australian director who leads the Komische Oper, presents Weinberger’s operetta as an imaginative sequence of scenes taking place in and around an oversized, constantly transforming box. So an intimate duet like Traumversunken, liebestrunken can turn into a campy burlesque spectacle complete with a Busby Berkeley-style staircase and dancers wielding quivering ostrich feather fans. 

The cast is effective enough, with soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker a charismatic presence. Tansel Akzeybek’s well-placed tenor is lovely, if restrained. But soprano Alma Sadé as a sexually precocious teenager too often turns exuberance into shrieking, especially in the overlong passages of dialogue. 

The terrific orchestra under Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, who is well-known to Toronto audiences for his work with Tapestry Opera and the COC, balances the frivolous and the poignant with versatility and stylishness. Their much-needed momentum reinforces the pleasures of this valuable, if uneven, addition to the operetta repertoire.

02 Voices in the WildernessVoices in the Wilderness – Music from the Ephrata Cloister
Elizabeth Bates; Clifton Massey; Nils Neubert; Steven Hrycelak; Christopher Dylan Herbert
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0141 (brightshiny.ninja/voices-in-the-wilderness)

This technically thrilling and historically significant recording is the brainchild of noted musical director/producer, Christopher Dylan Herbert, and boasts the prestigious vocal talents of soprano Elizabeth Bates, alto Clifton Massey, tenor Nils Neubert and bass Steven Hrycelak. The entire project is composed of a cappella hymns, written just under 300 years ago by the residents of the Ephrata Cloister – an 18th-century celibate community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, established in 1732. Nearly all of the music here was written by the solitary sisters of Ephrata – the earliest known female composers in North America.* These challenging pieces have never before been performed by a professional ensemble, and in keeping with the authenticity of the CD, the recording itself was done in the very room for which the material was originally composed.

With the opening, Rose-Lillie-Blume Sequence, the voices introduce themselves and come together in perfect symmetry, rendering this rich composition in all of its original majesty. The acoustics of the Ephrata Cloister provide the sonic platform for this stirring piece – rendered in perfect classical, High German. On Herzog Unsrer Seligkeiten, dynamics as well as precise rhythmic motifs are utilized, and of special mention is Wann Gott sein Zion Losen Wird, where the satisfying arrangement explores curiously modern chordal motifs, foreshadowing chorale works yet to come, and the eventual emergence of 12-tone composition.  

The final track, Formier, Mein Topffer, is both emotional and direct. Written by Sister Föbin (Christianna Lassle) the chord voicings are placed in the exact sweet spot for each register, creating a shining jewel of vocal music, and a celebration of early female composers/vocalists, as well as their creative vision, which is more than timely.

Editor’s note: Some might dispute this claim, and suggest that an Order of Ursuline nuns in Montreal were more likely the first female composers on the continent. I checked with noted Canadian music specialist John Beckwith who told me that, in an essay on Canada’s earliest music-theory treatise (1718), Erich Schwandt (formerly with the music department, U. of Victoria), claimed that the Ursulines wrote original music. The order was established in 1639 and was noted for its attention to culture and the arts, especially music, suggesting that these sisters were composing nearly a century before those of the Ephrata Cloisture.

03 Beethoven Christ Mount OlivesBeethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives
Elsa Dreisig; Pavol Breslik; David Soar; London Symphony Chorus; LSO; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0826D (lsolive.lso.co.uk)

In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke capture Jesus’ last moments as a free man. Aware of his impending arrest and execution – having been betrayed by Judas Iscariot – Jesus uses his final night to reflect and pray at a familiar location, the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the Mount of Olives. To this day, the location remains a site of Christian pilgrimage and, in 1803, afforded rich artistic fodder to Beethoven, who used its physical beauty and importance as a site within Christian theology to pen his compelling, rarely performed, and only Passion oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives

Although not theologically Christian, but rather an Enlightenment-era deist, Beethoven was most certainly drawing a parallel between this Gospel narrative of Jesus at his most fallible and his own looming existential crisis of encroaching deafness and isolation. Written while living at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien and understood, at the time, within the context of other 18th-century oratorios that focus on religious themes, subjects and iconography, Christ on the Mount of Olives deserves to occupy a more central place within Beethoven’s already bountiful canon. Good thing then, that it is performed and recorded so beautifully here on this 2020 LSO Live release by the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. 

Fleshed out with an enormous chorus of nearly 150 under the direction of Simon Halsey and released in honour of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, this must-have recording packages together a compelling religious narrative with the majestic backing of the LSO and inspired soloists Elsa Dreisig, Pavol Breslik and David Soar performing a variety of biblical figures from Franz Xaver Huber’s libretto. With the religious importance for some of the upcoming Christmas season, this recording could not have come at a better time.

05 ElgarElgar – Sea Pictures; Falstaff
Elīna Garanča; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Decca Records 00028948509683 (deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue)

A new and sumptuous live recording from Decca features two important works by Sir Edward Elgar: the five Sea Pictures, Op 37 (1899) and the seldom-heard “symphonic study,” Falstaff, Op.68 (1913).

Elgar was both proud and fond of his Falstaff. While it was well received at its premiere in 1913, it hasn’t quite found its footing in the standard repertoire to date (at least outside of England). Conversely, the Sea Pictures have long captured the imaginations of singers and audiences alike. The sea itself is central to British identity and, while many other cultures could claim the same, an Englishman’s love for his island’s coastal waters is of a particular brand; Elgar epitomizes this relationship in his cycle. They are unique for their dark and rich soundscapes, initially scored for contralto. (Canada’s own Maureen Forrester sang them – almost as trademark – throughout her career.) The five Pictures set words from different poets, including the composer’s wife: In Haven (Capri).

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to interpreting Elgar. What an experience it is, to hear him steer this record’s course. Barenboim’s seasoned Elgar is luminous and emotive, ever balanced and rational. One might argue that he brings just a hint of German cerebralism to such overtly English Romantic music. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča contributes her own impressive artistry here, embracing this ravishing repertoire with all that she’s got. Her voice soars above the Staatskapelle Berlin, buoyed and serene, “to rolling worlds of wave and shell.”

06 Egon WelleszEgon Wellesz – Die Opferung des Gefangenen
Hwang; Cerha; Dewey; Koch; Vienna Concert Choir; Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Robert Brooks
Capriccio C5423 (naxosdirect.com/search/845221054230)

Austrian-British composer Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), of Hungarian Jewish origin, was a prolific composer. Extensively performed and decorated during his lifetime, he achieved success early, being the first of Arnold Schoenberg’s students to receive a publishing contract from Universal Edition, before Berg or Webern. Generally neglected in the decades since his death, this world premiere recording, by the Vienna Concert Choir and the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien of Wellesz’s 1924-25 opera-ballet Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Sacrifice of the Prisoner), is part of a wider revival of interest in his music. 

The opera’s story is based on a scenario by Eduard Stucken after the ancient Mayan play Rabinal Achi, performed annually in Rabinal, Guatemala. Subtitled “a cultural drama for dance, solo singers and choir,” Wellesz’s work is about an imprisoned prince who is waiting for his execution after a battle. It’s not a huge stretch however to see the story reflecting many of the post WWI anxieties around the consequences of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Replete with dramatic vocal and choral scenes and massive orchestral passages with Mahlerian and Schoenbergian echoes, Die Opferung is a prime example of Wellesz’s mature Viennese musical style. His signature colourful orchestration is underscored by forte brass choir and bold percussion statements.  This theatrical work, parts of which would not be out of place on a later blockbuster movie soundtrack, reads surprisingly well on audio CD, even without the visual and dance elements of a stage production. 

07 English SongsEnglish Songs à la Française
Tyler Duncan; Erika Switzer
Bridge Records 9537 (bridgerecords.com/products/9537)

British Columbia-born/New York-based baritone, Tyler Duncan, and his wife, pianist Erika Switzer, are internationally renowned performers as a duo, and individually. The clever idea of performing French composers’ settings of original English texts started when French baritone François Le Roux handed them Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cherry-Tree Farm score, set to Horace Lennard’s poetry. More of these Romantic/20th century songs were compiled, which, after their recital in Tours, led to this, their remarkable first duo album.

A literal who’s who of French composers successfully set the original English texts. Reynaldo Hahn’s Five Little Songs (1914), set to Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, are short children’s songs with tonal word painting like the florid piano lines behind lyrical vocals in The Swing, and colourful low vocal pitches with piano tremolo night sky effects in The Stars. Darius Milhaud’s settings of five Rabindranath Tagore Child Poems (1916) are operatic, such as the fully orchestrated piano part supporting lyrical emotional singing in the closing, The Gift. Love Maurice Ravel’s Chanson écossaise (1910) setting of Robert Burns’ text. Ravel emulates a Scottish quasi-bagpipe folk song without ever creating a parody. Jules Massenet’s setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Come into the Garden, Maud (1880) foreshadows future musical theatre sounds. Poulenc, Roussel and Gounod works complete the recording. 

Duncan and Switzer deserve a “bilingual” standing ovation for their tight duo musicianship and colourful interpretations of these one-of-a kind art songs.

Listen to 'English Songs à la Française' Now in the Listening Room

08 Saman ShahiSaman Shahi – Breathing in the Shadows
Maureen Batt; Fabián Arciniegas; Tiffany Hanus; Various Instrumentalists
Leaf Music LM237 (samanshahimusic.com)

The debut album by Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Saman Shahi, Breathing in the Shadows, feels like a gentle journey through the kaleidoscope of meaningful images, each captured in a subjective and probing way. The three song cycles included on this album are worlds unto their own – powerful and empowering, existential blocks of unique and diverse musical language combining minimalism, dodecaphony, hints of Iranian traditional music and rock. The poetry is beautiful and impactful, but it is the music that propels it beyond its scope. Shahi’s music lets the poetic images breathe and blossom and underlines the themes of inner and outer struggles, yearnings, rebelliousness and death (symbolic and physical). The rhythmic drive and atonal segments create an immediacy that is enlivening. 

The titular song cycle, Breathing in the Shadows, is based on poems by five poetesses from around the world and features a wonderfully talented duo – soprano Maureen Batt and pianist Tara Scott. Each song is a statement of independence and defiance in the face of oppression, longing or, simply, love. 

The second cycle, Orbit, builds on sharp imagery conceived by Serbian-Canadian singer-songwriter Jelena Ćirić. The waves of colours Shahi creates in the piano lines are just gorgeous and tenor Fabián Arciniegas’ phrasing underscores the words with subtle urgency.

The concluding cycle, Song of a Wandering Soul, merges several musical forms that Shahi considers a part of his musical identity. Written for a larger ensemble, using improvisation and electronics to create varied textures and riding on the perfectly suited timbre of Tiffany Hanus’ voice, this cycle is pure rock ’n roll in a classical setting. 

Listen to 'Saman Shahi: Breathing in the Shadows' Now in the Listening Room

09 Elora SingersReena Esmail – This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity; Barbara Croall – Giishkaapkag
Elora Singers; Mark Vuorinen
Independent TESR-001 (elorasingers.ca/hear/recordings)

The professional Elora Singers have established a reputation as one of the finest chamber choirs in Canada, particularly known for their commitment to Canadian repertoire. This admirable new release on their own imprint features two contrasting large-scale choral works by Canadian composer Barbara Croall and American composer Reena Esmail.

The subtitle, Prayers for Unity, of Esmail’s This Love Between Us (2016) tips listeners off to the composer’s intent. The work’s seven movements are titled after the major religious traditions of India: Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam. Esmail has selected representative texts in the original seven languages from each, evoking unity, universal brotherhood and kindness. A signature element of the work is the inspired and effective incorporation of a Hindustani sitarist, vocal soloist and tabla player into the orchestral and choral texture, underscoring the fusion of North Indian and Western classical musical elements, both traditions Esmail is at home in.

Odawa First Nation composer and musician Barbara Croall’s 2019 Giishkaapkag (Where the Rock is Cut Through) is scored for choir, percussion and the pipigwan (Anishinaabe cedar flute) eloquently played by the composer. The vocals are underscored by a powerful, elegiac text condemning the violence to the feminine in creation. “Due to colonization,” writes Croall, “many women and girls likewise have suffered (and continue to suffer) … due to the many past and continuing violations of Shkakmigkwe (Mother Earth).” Referencing the present tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women, Croall reminds us that “the rocks bear witness and speak to us of this” – a message also heard clearly through her powerful music.

10 Rosa MysticaRosa Mystica – Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir; Paul Spicer
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0617 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061729)

Among the stated objectives of this record label, one stands out and it is this: “to uncover new [music] … from the unique to the extraordinary…” This disc, Rosa Mystica, not only fits that objective, but it does so with a great deal of reverential eloquence. 

The centerpiece – halfway through the album – is Benjamin Britten’s ardent setting of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem Rosa Mystica (Mystical Rose), an invocation in the 16th-century Litany of Loreto, which actually dates back to the Tanakh and Song of Songs (2:1), and which, when translated, reads: “I am the Rose of Sharon.” Paul Spicer and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Choir interpret the work with shimmering passion. 

It is Siva Oke, the recording producer, who makes sure that your edification begins from track one, with the inimitable John Tavener’s Mother of God, here I stand. Remarkably, each track thereafter is instrumentally and lyrically fresh despite the underlying theme of all the music being the same: that is, dedication to the praise and worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The producer has also reflected a keen sense of history and openness for new material in the selection of these Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Nicholas Ludford (1485-1557) offering, Ave cujus conceptio, is the oldest. Meanwhile, from the contemporary era, Carl Rutti’s Ave Maria, Judith Bingham’s Ave virgo sanctissima and Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose make their debuts on this impressive recording.

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